Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March Madness

Happy Passover to all the tribe members out there. I had another great seder on Monday, including some of the most delicious and tender steaks I have ever made. Of course, the 6 inches of rain that fell in my area over the preceding day and a half put a little bit of a damper on my plans to fire up the Weber again this early in the season, but with the help of three good-sized pans and a nice stovetop, it all worked out great in the end.

The family spent a good deal of time sitting around talking about this year's NCAA tournament, which has really been an amazing one. In the end it comes down to a 5 seed playing a 5 seed on one side of the Final Four (Butler vs. Michigan State), and a 1 seed vs. a 2 seed in Duke vs. West Virginia on the other side. I don't remember the last time we had two seeds as low as 5 both battling it out on one side of the Final Four bracket, and frankly it's pretty damn rare that even a mid-major conference team like Butler makes any appearance in the Final Four these days. The thing that is so interesting about this year's tournament is not to me so much the teams that made it, but the teams that didn't. To think that in this of all years, Kentucky did not make the Final Four, Kansas did not make the Final Four, and Syracuse did not make the Final Four, that is truly amazing. That right there is like a third of all the first-round NBA draftable players in all of college basketball on those three teams, and not one of them could win four games in a row in the Big Dance. In a year where otherwise, the talent just seems to be spread much more thinly than in previous years.

Which brings me to the first point I was keying on with my family this weekend. This year, moreso than maybe any other year I can remember, the Final Four is truly not about the players. It's about the coaches. It could have been totally about the players, if John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson from Kentucky were matching up with Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins and Scoop Jardine of Syracuse, or Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and Marcus Morris of Kansas. But instead, it's Butler, it's Michigan State, it's Duke, and it's West Virginia.

On the Duke and West Virginia side of the bracket, you're looking at coaching legend Coach K in his incredible 11th Final Four appearance in his 25-year career at Duke, going against Bob Huggins, the former Cincinnati coach who has led his alma mater back to the Final Four for the first time in some 60 years. Huggins has always been known as a guy who gets the absolute most out of his players, and now with bona fide star Da'Sean Butler leading the way, Huggins once again has one of the hardest-working teams in the country, with three players averaging around 7 rebounds and 3 more players averaging around 3 assists per game. Huggins went an amazing 379-113 in 16 years at Cincinnati, 46-24 in two years at Kansas State, and has now put up an 80-27 record in his first three years at West Virginia, for a combined head coaching record of 670 wins to just 240 losses, all of which were not at the top programs in the country with the ability to hand pick every recruit in the country like the Coach K's and the John Calipari's of the world. Huggins is the reason this team is where it's at right now, and the matchup with Coach K -- who himself is probably coaching the least talented of all his Final Four squads over the years -- should be an intersting one.

On the other side, first there is Butler head coach Brad Stevens. Although Stevens is in just his third year as an NCAA head coach, what an illustrious beginning that career has had so far. In his first year as Butler head coach, Stevens led Butler to a school and Horizon league record 30 wins, becoming the third-youngest head coach in NCAA Division I history to lead a team to 30 wins in a season, and the fourth winningest first year coach in NCAA history. Still as a rookie coach, his team won the Horizon League regular season and tournament championships, and went on to win one game in the NCAA tournament. During the year Butler was nationally ranked for a school and league record 19 consecutive weeks. Despite losing four seniors after the 2007–08 season, Stevens once again surprised the world by winning the regular season Horizon championship and taking Butler to the NCAA tournament as an at large selection. Stevens' 56-10 first-two-years NCAA record places him second only to Bill Guthridge (58) in total wins during one's first two years as head coach in the history of the league. Also during the 2008–09 season, Stevens became the sixth head coach in NCAA history to reach 50 wins in 56 games or fewer, earning Stevens the Hugh Durham Mid-Major Coach of the Year Award as well as the Horizon League Coach of the Year for his efforts. And now there is this year, which has seen Butler go 30-4 once again under Brad Stevens, including a perfect 18-0 in the Horizon League which they once again dominated, before beating UTEP, Murray State, #1-seeded Syracuse and then #2-seeded Kansas State to earn the Bulldogs the first Final Four appearance in school and Horizon League history. So while this guy's coaching career has definitely been short, it's started off about as good as anyone's out there. Literally.

But even after all that gushing about Butler head coach Brad Stevens, Michigan State's Tom Izzo simply has to lead the pack. 2010 is now Izzo's amazing sixth final four since 1999 -- six Final Fours in just twelve years. And the truly amazing thing about it is, he has done all of that with exactly one NBA lottery pick in that entire run -- Jason Richardson back in the 2001 NBA draft. During that same span, Duke has made four Final Fours, and has done so with 11 NBA lottery picks coming through its halls along the way. UNC has made five Final Fours in that time and had six players drafted in the NBA Lottery. But think about it -- can you even name anyone good who's played for Michigan State basketball in the past 12 years? Me either. And yet somehow, here we are again heading to Indianapolis, heading to another Final Four, and Tom Izzo is once again there. Six Final Fours in 12 years, with basically no talent to speak of. Tom Izzo is the new best coach in NCAA basketball, hands down.

So in my mind, with all the great, most-talented teams having gone down now in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, the Final Four is truly about the head coaches and not the players. And the other realization I came to this weekend, unfortunately, is that I don't think a Final Four about the head coaches and not the players makes for very interesting viewing. I mean, if Butler beats MSU and plays for the national championship, that in and of itself will have some excitement to it for me. Butler winning the national title would be in my mind about as big of a championship story as we've ever seen in the NCAAs. But if Butler goes on to lose to the ongoing wizardry of Tom Izzo, I really feel like the tournament was so good this time around, that by now it's kind of burned out and can only fizzle away from here. Once Syracuse lost late last week, and then the moment it become obvious with about 8 minutes to go in the second half that Kentucky simply was not going to come back against West Virginia this past weekend, the last burning embers of 2010 March Madness went out for me. And don't get me wrong, it's not like I'm saying I'm a Cuse fan at all (I am more of a genocide fan than a Syracuse fan believe you me), but rather just that those seemed to me to be the biggest, most captivating teams of this year's tournament. Kansas losing early was ok and I think the true craziness of the tournament could still have been preserved if we had some of these other strongly-talented teams still in the mix. But my guess is that, despite how truly great this year's NCAA Tournament has undeniably been so far, ratings for the Final Four are going to be down and down noticeably from the past few years. I guess only time will tell if I'm right about that one, but here's hoping that the Big Dance finds one or two more crazy miracles in 2010 and turns this coming weekend into one more for the ages.

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Blogger Kristin said...

this was a good read! especially when you start off wit description of good food;) i also enjoyed reading http://trophysportsbook.com/march-madness-sports-facts-stats-betting/

8:06 PM  

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